I’m pushing every scarf and purse out of my way as I inch closer and closer to the ticket table. There’s a line a mile long at C-Boy’s Heart and Soul in South Austin. I stand on my tiptoes to get a glance at Dale Watson’s signature-silver pompadour as he strums along on the back stage.
Thankfully the beer line is a little bit shorter. I take a cold sip as I stare down at my two-dollar ticket for the first round of Chicken Sh** Bingo. The packed dancehall crowds around the small cage as the rooster steps around, picking at feed atop the winning numbers. The anticipation is agonizing as its rear end moves away from my chance for a hundred-dollar payout.
Dale Watson performs at C-Boy’s Heart and Soul. Photo by Andrew Blanton
Watson brought the idea back from a tour in California, and in the early 2000s an Austin tradition was born. Chicken Sh** Bingo ran for over a decade at Ginny Kalmbach’s Little Longhorn Saloon in North Austin and recently relocated to the South Congress district. It’s still hosted by Ginny every Sunday, and she still gives away free hot dogs while supplies last.
“I figured it would last for a month, you know, at the most,” Watson said. “I didn’t really expect it to go for twenty years.”
A rooster chooses its winning bingo square. Photo by Andrew Blanton
If you could take all of the traditional music in the southwest and boil it into one spicy pot of gumbo, you’d get a night with Dale Watson. He’s often Johnny Cash, twanging his guitar with a deep southern drawl. Before you know it, he’s Freddy Fender singing a Terlingua ballad.
Watson’s taken his signature sound to all corners of the Earth, and the dozens of coins glued to his Fender Telecaster serves as a visual passport to prove it. He jokes with the first winner on stage, a tourist from Phoenix, before Ginny offers the prize. Watson gives the winners a choice between the payout of the tickets, or a mystery amount from his pocket. It’s usually roughly the same, but its rumored to have been in the thousands one night.
Coins from around the world on Dale Watson’s guitar. Photo by Andrew Blanton
I step outside for a breath of air between rounds and chat with Ginny’s longtime friend Phyllis Jamar. Over the years, Jamar has become the winningest player in all of Chicken Sh** Bingo cashing in sixty-three times, though she probably played more rounds than anyone else along the way. Jamar now helps Ginny run the ticket line and chauffeurs her to the venue. When I asked where all those winnings went, Jamar laughed and said, “cigarettes, vodka and gas.”
Tickets quickly sell out for the second round and the rooster starts pecking around. Ginny tosses scraps of maraschino cherries into the cage from time to time to keep it moving around.
“That’s just for theater,” Jamar said. “Once they’ve got food in their system it doesn’t move things along. It’s really for show.”
Ginny Kalmbach and Phyllis Jamar sell tickets for Chicken Sh** Bingo. Photo by Andrew Blanton
The crowd barely thins out throughout the four rounds while I hope for my number to be called. They change out chickens from time to time if the round is dragging. Piles of discarded tickets litter the cocktail tables like scratch-off lottery tickets in a gas station parking lot.
Discarded bingo tickets at C-Boy’s Heart and Soul. Photo by Andrew Blanton
Watson holds up a Lone Star beer and advertises the brand between songs with a big smile. It’s hard to know whether the attraction would have gained so much steam without his stellar country band, and he hardly views himself as the last of the breed. In 2014, Watson founded the Ameripolitan Awards to showcase younger alt-country acts that are shunned by the mainstream.
“Since starting the Ameripolitan Awards, I’ve seen young bands, young singers, songwriters, artists that really inspire me that the roots are still alive and well,” Watson said. “It’s not like people doing just oldies or something. They’re doing original music.”
A rooster waits for cherries at Chicken Sh** Bingo. Photo by Andrew Blanton
Watson sees the alt-country scene in an optimistic light, going the same way bluegrass did after being shunned from the airwaves.
“When it wouldn’t be played on the radio, and wouldn’t be played on the (Grande Ol’) Opry, they just made their own circuit, made their own thing,” Watson said.
As I step out the door I can’t say I walk away with any disappointment, like spending fifty dollars tossing rings at rigged bottles at the county fair. Chicken Sh** Bingo is a spectacle to behold.